Genius or Jest?
September 3, 2008
A performance by controversial Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich opened this year's Chopin and His Europe International Music Festival in Warsaw Aug. 15, drawing mixed reviews from listeners.
Says music critic Jan Popis:
Whatever we think of the opening concert of the 4th Chopin and His Europe International Music Festival on Aug. 15, which included a solo performance by Ivo Pogorelich, its biggest achievement was convincing the artist to return to Warsaw after an absence of almost 28 years. This is the period of time that has lapsed since his last appearance during the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1980, which Pogorelich did not win but at which he achieved a moral victory. The 22-year-old's performance, although it met with huge enthusiasm from the public, did not find favor with the judges. After the third qualifying round, Pogorelich found himself out of the contest, causing possibly the biggest controversy in the history of the Chopin competitions.
Pogorelich is undoubtedly an individualist who is also a hugely talented pianist. He flies in the face of convention and even sometimes mocks it. He is arrogant, which is clearly visible in the way he plays, looks and behaves, including chewing gum in public, which has caused shock. But when the judges, albeit not unanimously, eliminated him from the 1980 competition, one of the judges, Martha Argerich, protested. She refused to participate further in the event in protest that an exceptionally talented musician should be eliminated from such a serious competition. Another of the judges, the famous pianist and Chopin expert Nikita Magaloff, followed suit.
The scandal resulted in the biggest impresarios turning their attention to the young pianist. Record company Deutsche Grammophone signed a contract, not as tradition had it with the winner of the competition, but with Pogorelich, who thus started out on an international career.
Along with Alice Kezeradze, his artistic mentor and future wife, he abandoned what was then the USSR, where he had studied, graduating from the Moscow Conservatory. Abroad he started recording works such as Chopin albums that included the composer's Concerto in F Minor, Prelude no. 24, scherzos, and Sonata in B Flat Minor. Pogorelich cemented his position within a exclusive group of the world's best pianists.
Pogorelich harbored his resentment of the way he was treated in Warsaw, although it brought him fame and fortune, up, it seems, until this year. Pogorelich said in an interview in California in 1993: "I think that in 1980 people wrongly interpreted my attitude and approach to Chopin's music. I studied it very thoroughly, its style and means of expression. I searched for a key, but not in a conventional fashion. When I came to Warsaw for the competition, I wanted a certain form of confrontation, to see to what degree the results of my searching and fascination would appeal to the public. What happened, happened. Rejected by the jury I lost faith in what I was doing, and for many years. The loss of faith and motivation for a young artist, as I well know, is deadly."
On Aug. 15 this year in Warsaw Pogorelich, accompanied by the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra under Jacek Kaspszyk, played not Chopin but Sergei rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Nothing has changed. Pogorelich has his own style of playing. Of the romantic pathos, the quintessence of Rachmaninoff's composition, there was almost nothing. Instead we had huge contrast of tempo and dynamism. He played series of very difficult octaves at a tremendous pace and yet managed to lengthen slower fragments to an almost unbearable degree. There was more Prokofiev in his performance than Rachmaninoff. But maybe the sharpened and brutal sounding method of his playing is meant to be his modern interpretation of the esthetics of this music. You felt that he was searching for something. I would like to hope that he was not flippant with regard to music that is so loved by the public.
But Pogorelich was provoking us again. He gives us to understand that he is not interested in any tradition. Is he mocking or finding his own way? Rachmaninoff without a romantic soul? Everything was turned upside down. But after a hundred years should we play music in exactly the same way as before? And this is the essence of Pogorelich. He was the same as he was in 1980 when he played Chopin in Warsaw. I am on his side because perhaps it is a good thing that today, when there is a tendency to crush artistic individualism, there are people like Pogorelich who have within them a restless passion for discovering new artistic horizons.
Above all he is a phenomenal musician, who is on my private shortlist of the world's leading pianists.